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The New Future of Motherhood by Judith Stadtman Tucker

page two

Why feminism still matters

There is a certain mistrust of feminism among leaders of the new mothers’ movement based on a shared perception that the priorities of second wave activism left lower-income women and women with caregiving responsibilities in the lurch, and the widespread impression that, politically speaking, feminism is something of a non-starter for the average American mom. But before we relegate feminism to the scrap heap of dated ideas, I think it’s important to take a closer look at the reasons Jesse Bernard’s bold predictions about the future of motherhood missed the mark.

There’s no question the climate for motherhood has changed since The Future of Motherhood was published in 1974— the real problem is it hasn’t changed enough. The feminist agenda to promote women’s economic independence was moderately successful in clearing the way for women’s participation in the professional and skilled labor force, which opened up important work/life opportunities for mothers that never before existed. Unfortunately, the full-scale invasion of male dominated professions by highly qualified female workers was not enough to rehabilitate deep-seated cultural attitudes about women, children and family.

Despite the fact 65 percent of American children live in households where all parents are employed, today’s high-performance workplaces are still structured as if every wage earner can rely on a full-time caregiver to pick up the slack at home. And since traditional attitudes about appropriate roles for men and women still exert a powerful influence on the way we organize our families and workplaces, mothers are much more likely than fathers to find themselves squeezed out of full-time employment. Thanks to our cultural obsession with the lives and lifestyles of affluent urbanites, high-profile media reporting tends to concentrate on the work-life predicaments of exceptionally well-educated mothers in upscale occupations. But the grim reality is that the overall lack of workplace flexibility and the miserly provisions of U.S. policies to support working families take the heaviest toll on lower-income parents.

And if that’s not bad enough, we’re still stuck with the myth of the omnipotent mother— the absurd (but tenacious) notion that children are perfectible, and mothers are the only ones who can perfect them. It’s comforting— not to mention politically expedient— to cling to the belief that the optimal development of children depends solely on their exposure to a specific quality and quantity of maternal devotion, as if families’ access to resources and general social conditions had no real bearing on children’s prospects. Regrettably, both conservative and liberal thinkers have gotten away with advancing the preposterous theory that if the nation’s errant mothers would simply buckle down and do the job of motherhood the way it was meant to be done— meaning a married, child-centered, resource intensive, selfless sort of way— the country could substantially rid itself of a host of pesky social problems, such as poverty, crime, substance abuse, obesity and moral decay.

The idealization of conscientious mothering as a kind of universal salve for what’s gone wrong with society has tremendous appeal— both to those who benefit from the social and economic subordination of women, and to mothers themselves. It’s immensely gratifying to think the more mundane aspects of caregiving— the cooking, the cleaning, the endless rounds of delivering and retrieving our children from their assorted educational and recreational activities— add up to something more than a sum of their parts, and it’s reassuring to imagine that we have more control over the events and encounters that shape our children’s lives than we probably do. It’s uplifting to believe that all the work we put into keeping our children safe and sound helps us cultivate specialized skills and sensitivities we can use to change their world for the better— either through our own direct actions or through the positive contributions of our mindfully-reared children. It’s wonderfully affirming to hear that mothers are irreplaceable, that motherhood is “the most important job in the world,” that diligent mothers acquire a deep and abiding wisdom about the essential nature and needs of children— not just their own children, but all children, everywhere— that those lacking maternal experience can never hope to match.

When I’m in one of my gloomier moods, I tend to think of the reflexive veneration of motherhood as a sort of consolation prize— even though we live in a society that systematically discounts mothers and the work they do, at least we have a reason to feel good about ourselves. But I also appreciate that mothers reprise these conventional sentiments because they genuinely feel true to us— and because when it comes to expressing the depth of our emotional attachment to our children and the personal meaning of motherhood, it's the only type of language and logic our culture is prepared to validate.

The trouble with this narrative of heroic motherhood is that it flows from the exact same stream of ideology that neatly sections the full range of human activity and emotional response into two separate spheres— a great big one labeled “his” and an itty-bitty one labeled “hers.” It’s part of a carefully cultivated story that says women are particularly well suited for caring work while men are better equipped for jobs that demand strategy, strength and competition. And even though we’ve finally reached a point in the history of human progress where each side of the talent pool is willing to tolerate some incursion from the other, we’re still operating from a worldview that assumes the fundamental capacities of men and women are different and fixed. This is why we just know women are better suited to dependency, in all its variations, while men are made for autonomy— and over the course of the last 300 years (and probably very much longer) an exceptional amount of intellectual energy has been devoted to explaining why this is and must always be so. But remember, it’s just a story— one story out of any number of stories we might tell about the nature of men and women and how they live together.

When we talk about the practice of conscientious mothering in such gendered terms, it sounds pretty good— good for mothers, good for children, good for society. The major rub is that this timeworn estimation of the innate abilities of the sexes underpins a social order in which men still have considerably greater power than women do, and this makes it practically impossible for women to get the resources they need to preserve their own health and well-being— and that of their children— without submitting to some degree of subordination. Needless to say, this works to the advantage of individuals and institutions with a vested interest in retaining their present level of social power and privilege. And clearly, it works to the disadvantage of women, children, and everyone else who is excluded from the dominant group.

I’ll admit this analysis sounds disconcertingly theoretical when the tender subject at hand is how mothers care for and about their children. But it does offer an alternative explanation— dare I say, a feminist explanation— for why mothers work less, are paid less, and spend more hours doing unpaid child care and housework than fathers do. Love and “choice” may indeed factor into it, but I like to imagine that it’s technically— if not politically— possible to create a future of motherhood where women’s love and women’s choices are fully compatible with women’s equality.

If the ultimate aim of the mothers’ movement is to advance the status of women who mother, it will be counterproductive to frame our appeals for policy reform in a manner that fails to challenge traditional gender roles— or to demand better support and services for mothers now and hope women’s equality will “trickle down” later. When we valorize the work of mothering as the most important job in the world, we inevitably reinforce the same ideological system that devalues the work of caregiving and limits women’s individual and political power— they power they need to change the world for children or anyone else. When we suggest the practice of mothering instills in all mothers a refined moral sensibility or fundamental intuition about what children need to thrive both at home and in the world, we relieve those other than mothers of the responsibility of ensuring that our children inhabit a non-violent and caring society, and we inadvertently strengthen distorted cultural assumptions about who mothers are and what they do best. And if we truly want caregiving to count in our society, we must be courageous enough to release it from its secondary status as women’s work.

why motherhood is not a job

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